I am very sad to share the news that we recently lost another great Mexican folk artist--Antonio Anita Mejia of Michoacán. I have known Antonio since 2003 and Mexico By Hand has bought and sold dozens of his beautiful pieces over the years. As a matter of fact, I have many right now waiting to be shipped from Mexico to California. I first noticed Antonio in front of his colorfully painted bateas and trasteritos at the Dia de los Muertos market in Patzcuaro, and took this photo. He was sitting just outside of the official artisans booth area at the Plaza Grande, and it looked to me like he had snuck into the market and didn’t really belong there. I soon found out that of course he did.
I had seen pieces similar to what he was selling, as the iconic painted chairs and flowery wood trays called bateas are well-known to Mexicans as well as other folk art collectors. There is even a demand among gringos for “vintage” bateas on websites like Ebay and among antique dealers. And I had seen some magnificent large bateas similar to these in the museum/store at La Casa de las Artesanias in Morelia.
It was on that day I found out that the bateas were made in Quiroga, Michoacán by this humble man with no art training, who clearly possessed tremendous talent. The colors of Antonio’s painted bateas, trays, trasteros, chairs, and jewelry boxes are lovely and vibrant-- making one happy just to look at them.
Quiroga is named after the man the Purepecha people affectionately call Tata Vasco or great-grandpa. He was the Archbishop Vasco de Quiroga who in the 16th century established the crafts industry in so many pueblos in Michoacán, crafts which continue to this day. Most of what is sold in the souvenir shops that line the main street of Quiroga is not quality artesania and isn’t made by people in the town either, though there are some real artisans who live in pueblos just a few kilometers away. Quiroga is where one goes to eat the best carnitas, but it's not the place to go for fine crafts. Except for those made by Antonio Anita Mejia.
We often had trouble locating Antonio’s house, and were happy when he briefly had a shop right down the street from Carnitas Carmelo. But there weren’t enough tourists coming by and he couldn’t pay the rent, so he gave it up and went back to working in his home workshop. Antonio once told me he didn’t really know if the total I had written down was correct, but the soft-spoken artist always trusted me to pay him the correct amount. He wasn’t good at math, but as my husband Doug said with great admiration-- “no one loaded a paintbrush like Antonio".
I actually don't know a lot about Señor Anita, except I remember the first time we met he told me that he had been working to support himself since he was 12 years old. His pieces have been purchased by customers from all over the world, and a few years ago I was excited to see that a large batea of Antonio’s hangs in the Museo de Arte Popular (Folk Art museum) in Mexico City. A few years ago he was asked by the Mexican government to create the huge cross pictured below as a gift for Pope Francis when he visited Mexico.
Antonio is survived by his wife and six grown children, two of whom he trained to continue the work. We are grateful for his talent and will always treasure the beautiful pieces he created.